guest post by Mat Sillito
I’d like to take a moment to talk about race and the Mormon church. No, not THAT race issue. Although never specifically denied the priesthood, my ancestors, sisters, and brothers have had racism to deal with in this church that has been subtler, but undeniable, and they are issues that have never really been officially addressed. Much of the racism and exclusion can be centered around one word: Lamanite.
See, as long as I can remember I’ve been one. At least, that’s what people have called me, once they found out that my mother is an immigrant from Mexico (and not from the colonies, although I’ve been asked that too, since our skin is much lighter than people assume Mexicans should have.) Native Americans, Latinos and Pacific Islanders get called Lamanites, or really, anyone with dark skin who isn’t black. BYU even used to have a dancing group called “Lamanite Generation.” (Really. Google it.)
Why does all this matter? Why does it matter if I’m called a Lamanite? Well, I used to not care. After all, when people call me that they also say that it is a good thing, that it means that I have accepted the gospel. That my being in the church is a fulfillment of prophecy. The tribe of Ephraim has reconverted the tribe of Manasseh. The church being filled with Lamanites – usually demonstrated by the church’s high success rate in South and Central America – is the fruition of millennia-old prophecies to our father Abraham. It is the completion of the grand promise of my race.
Except, who is that race? Even assuming all this is true (which depends on the historicity of the Book of Mormon, something I don’t even want to touch in this post) it would mean that my ancestors are the bloody barbarians who wiped out the chosen people. The scourge God used to wipe out His beloved Nephites when He was unhappy with them. Like carrion rats cleaning the rot, my ancestry is the divine pest remover. That’s hardly a legacy anyone wants pushed onto them. But even that I can leave aside.
Because there is a much bigger issue here. Notice who gets called Lamanites? Basically anyone who isn’t white, black, or Asian. My Chicano history goes together with my islander sisters and brothers, the plains American Indians, the Aymara people of the Altiplano, even the conquerors of native peoples of the American continents whose blood is forever mingled with those native peoples. Literally hundreds of indigenous groups, with stories, legends, myths, religions, beliefs, languages, and histories all decimated and erased with a single word: Lamanite.
I have tried my whole life to understand the complex interaction between imperialist and native, conquistador and American people, and how that plays out in modern history, where abused and murdered people try – and often fail – to win the right to exist. Where we try to make sense of the genocide and land grabs the modern Western world was founded on. To understand the permanent comingling of oppressors and oppressed that defines the North and South American landscape. To come to grips with the fact that my veins pump with both the blood of killers and killed. But I’m too busy to understand that multifaceted and dark history that drips and drains into the present. Too busy being a Lamanite.
In the Mormon church, that’s what I have been, and all I will be. But I’m done with it. I’m not your Lamanite. I and the millions of people like me, with cultures and histories infinitely more rich than that never will be. So don’t call me a Lamanite. I never was.